What’s a thriller?

When I mentioned to a new friend that I wrote thrillers with an alternate history setting, she batted aside (or maybe ignored) the alternate history bit and asked, “What do you call a thriller, then?”.

Er, isn’t it obvious?
Apparently not.

Merriam-Webster defines a thriller as “a work of fiction or drama designed to hold the interest by the use of a high degree of intrigue, adventure, or suspense“.

So are Georgette Heyer’s The Talisman Ring and The Reluctant Widow thrillers? Is Florence and Giles a Gothic thriller, a historical novel or literary fiction? Are C J Sansom’s Shardlake historic novels also thrillers? Does Kate Mosse’s Sepulchre qualify?

Or are we looking at books by Lee Child, Tom Clancy, or J D Robb which send adrenaline pumping around the body,  keeps the reader glued to the book and on the edge of their seat? Whatever the tension level, the protagonist hits, and has to deal with, a problem – an escape, a mission,  a mystery or a death threat; he or she always faces acute danger.

Literary devices such as cover-ups, red herrings, plot twists and cliffhangers are crucial to maintaining tension. And, of course, the plot always has a good, meaty villain often just as clever and cunning as the protagonist and who presents obstacles that the hero must overcome. The tension rachets up throughout the book and leads to a highly stressful climax often via car chases, shootouts and physical and/or psychological confrontations.

So is it all car chases, bombs and fights?
Common subgenres include psychological, crime  and mystery thrillers, not to mention spy and political, historical and sci-fi/alternate history thrillers.

Crime thrillers often centre around murder, ransoms, heists, revenge and kidnappings. Mystery thrillers are more investigations, either “whodunit” or “whydunit”. Psychological thrillers feature mind games, psychological themes, stalking, confinement/deathtraps, disturbed personality, paranoia and obsession. Fringe theories and false accusations are common in many thrillers, especially catastrophe/disaster/environmental ones while threats to entire countries, espionage, gadgets, technology, assassins and electronic surveillance are common in spy thrillers. And the huge range included in speculative fiction (romance, adventure, literary, space opera, time-slip) naturally includes alternate history thrillers.

You’ll have to wait until the next episode to find out about what exactly makes up a thriller…


2 comments to What’s a thriller?

  • I love reading mystery thrillers but I shy away from psychological ones. They play on my mind in the night! Had i benn in that conversation, “what is Alternate history?” would have been my first query though.

  • Alison

    Well, exactly, Rosalind! I think she heard “history” and not the “alternate”. When I mentioned the word “Roman” in the next sentence, I think I lost her.

    I haven’t found out all about her reading tastes yet – something I really like to know about people – but she was looking at the contemporary fiction and sagas at our local book exchange.

    Writers sometimes get wrapped up in genres, sub-genres and sub-sub-genres and forget that readers are after that key thing – a good story with engaging characters and a satisfactory resolution.